Federal directives raise management, budget, oversight questions at MBTA

The Federal Transit Administration’s crackdown on safety issues at the MBTA is raising questions about the transit agency’s management, its budget, and its oversight going forward.

On Wednesday, the FTA ordered the MBTA to address a series of safety issues that couldn’t wait until the federal agency’s formal review is completed later this summer. 

The issues deal with maintenance; staffing levels in the operations control center; general operating procedures, particularly in rail yards; compliance with regular safety recertifications; and oversight by the Department of Public Utilities. 

All of the items on the FTA’s checklist are fairly basic, particularly the recertifications, which are intended to make sure that staff periodically get a refresher on safety protocols.  

The problem was most severe on the Green Line, which has had a high number of “safety events” lately. Overall, 221 Green Line operators (41 percent of the total), 25 inspectors (26 percent), eight supervisors (50 percent), and 12 yard masters (100 percent) were deemed late for annual recertifications, according to the FTA. 

The lapsed certifications raise questions about T management’s attention to safety, despite all the claims that safety is the agency’s top priority. The fact that the T responded to the FTA’s directives by saying it would have all employees recertified this week suggests the authority isn’t paying attention to even the most basic issues.

The FTA’s directives never address the budget implications of the recommendations, but some of them could increase costs significantly. The maintenance directive for example, mentions the T spends $2 billion a year on capital initiatives and only $70 million on maintenance. The directive said the T lacks the resources and access to track needed to conduct a “proactive inspection and maintenance program.”

James Aloisi, a TransitMatters board member and former secretary of transportation, said many of the directives will require spending more on operations at a time when the T is already bracing for a future with budget shortfalls now that federal aid is running out. He said the Legislature and the governor need to step forward quickly with additional funding, even though T General Manager Steve Poftak hasn’t requested more money.

“The general manager reflects what the governor and the governor’s people want him to reflect,” Aloisi said, suggesting Poftak may be constrained in what he can publicly say. 

Rick Dimino, the president and CEO of the business group A Better City, said the “fiscal cliff” the T is facing will only get bigger with the FTA directives. He says the big question now is how lawmakers and the T itself will respond.

“There’s been alarm bells regarding safety going off at the T for some time now,” Dimino said. “The T’s response can’t be passive and it can’t be kicking the can down the road.”

He also said the Department of Public Utilities, which is charged with overseeing the T’s response to safety issues, needs to step up. Dimino couldn’t recall an instance where the DPU has publicly criticized the T’s handling of a safety issue, and suggested the agency should hire independent inspectors to monitor compliance.

“It might be time for the DPU to take its role more seriously,” he said.

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Prison construction moratorium: With the passage of a general government bond bill, the House and Senate are now in agreement that the state should not build any new prisons or expand existing ones for the next five years. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration says the moratorium on prison construction could hamstring efforts to take care of prisoners. Read more.

OPINION

Boston Children’s expansion: Peter Laussen and Greg Vanderslice of Boston Children’s Hospital say its affiliation with Franciscan Children’s and its proposed expansion will help contain pediatric health care costs. Read more.

Healthy Youth Act: Duane de Four of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center calls on lawmakers to pass the Healthy Youth Act so the state can lead in supporting LGBTQ+ youth. Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

The Legislature passed and sent to the governor a measure making mail-in voting permanent along with other pandemic-era election changes. (Boston Herald

Gov. Charlie Baker renewed his call for tax breaks for residents, pointing to surging state revenue. (MassLive

The Department of Conservation and Recreation agrees to pay $900,000 to acquire two parcels of land on Mount Tom. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

At least a dozen Boston parking control officers are under investigation for possibly writing bogus tickets during times they were supposed to be on the job but weren’t. (Boston Herald

A Berkshire Eagle editorial calls the City Council a “clown show” for shutting down debate on the city’s budget prematurely.

Conversations are stirring in Boston about the idea of city government making reparation payments for slavery. (Boston Globe

A developer is proposing a five-story apartment building in downtown Beverly. (Salem News)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Aides to then-President Trump told him it would be illegal to get Vice President Mike Pence to try to overturn the election results, evidence presented at congressional hearings yesterday showed. (Washington Post

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Leaders of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center are mounting a fresh effort at expansion, their third try in a decade to grow the South Boston facility. (Boston Globe

TRANSPORTATION

Leaders in government and business, including the president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Jim Rooney, expressed concern about a federal report spotlighting serious safety concerns with the MBTA. (Boston Globe

The Cape Ann Transportation Authority is cutting fares for longer rides across fare zones. (Gloucester Daily Times)

MBTA prepping for Green Line shutdowns. (State House News Serv ice)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

At a conference this week in Boston, representatives of natural gas companies touted their product as part of the answer to climate change. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The 57th prosecution in the Varsity Blues scandal ended with an acquittal for Amin Khoury, who was accused of making payments to a Georgetown University tennis coach to get his daughter into the school. (Associated Press)

MEDIA

USA Today to remove 23 articles after an investigation into fabricated sources. (New York Times)

There is talk the Boston Globe may expand its Rhode Island coverage to other parts of New England. (Media Nation)